More Than a Pretty Face

With Mortal Kombat 11 on the horizon, it’s time for me to embrace my role in the inevitable hype cycle, which typically comprises a lot of misplaced optimism before the eventual disappointment.  Not that the recent installments of the series have been bad; far from it, in fact.  Mortal Kombat X felt like the culmination of several decades’ worth of evolution into something beyond the gimmicks the series had been known for, finally given validation as a “legitimate” fighting game.  In that same time, however, Netherrealm has made much slower progress in their ability to tell stories worthy of the universe and characters they’ve constructed.  Mortal Kombat 9 itself was an admission that the lore was due for some much-needed cleanup, leaving behind a timeline that felt cramped full of characters with nothing to do.  Perhaps none were more indicative of that issue than series staple Mileena, who also just happens to be my favorite character.

We’ll get back to her in a moment, but first, it’s worth pointing out just how important that silly lore has been to the success of the series.  For many, caring about the story in a fighting game at all sounds like a waste of time, and, in most cases, you’d be correct.  Tekken tries more than most and still fails to leave a lasting impression beyond the various devil genes and attempted homicides courtesy of volcano.  Meanwhile, the lore of Street Fighter amounts to little more than a series of shrugs and hand waves whilst Ryu does about as well of a job resisting his dark side as I would resist the offer of steak fries.  Mortal Kombat was always different though.  Even from the outset, caring to do little beyond pay tribute to classic kung fu movies, it offered a tale of unseen realms and the various colorful warriors that cared to battle over their fate.  The opening of each new game would offer insight as to who had won the previous tournament and what that meant for the future, justifying each new character’s place in the world whilst giving your old favorites a new threat to either stop or align with.

No, it wasn’t Kafka, but it was certainly more than others in the genre cared to bother with, and offered something else for fans to latch on to once the novelty of fatalities wore off.  Before Mortal Kombat earned that cred as a viable fighter, story was a significant part of its appeal, informing the various single-player modes that would come in later games and leading to the often-replicated formula they’ve become known for in the present.

Which again leads us to MK9 and the need for a reboot in the first place.

By Mortal Kombat Armageddon, the primary conflict of the series involved everyone in the cast fighting to climb a pyramid hoping to achieve ultimate power.  Interpersonal conflicts were reduced to characters choosing the “good” side or the “evil” side, aligning with those they otherwise despised for the sake of convenience, culminating in a battle with a giant flame man that had previously only been an in-joke among the fanbase.  As one would expect from the 7th installment in a series that had been ongoing for 14 years at that point, elements of the lore had gotten away from them, and they needed a clean slate.  While MK9 had issues of its own, it achieved its purpose in removing a lot of the dead weight from the universe and steering away from the revolving door of big bads that would eventually lead to the whole Flame Guy/Pyramid situation.  The rules could now be rewritten.  Good guys could end up as bad guys.  New conflicts could emerge.  Previously unseen characters would be brought to light and underdeveloped favorites could have their long-awaited chance to shine.

Which brings us back to Mileena.

A quick trip to Google Images (safe-search recommended) will give you all you need to know about Mileena’s character, free of any other lore entanglements that would otherwise complicate things.  She is notable for two prominent features.

Let me re-word that.

She is known for a) her habit of presenting herself in a highly sexualized manner and b) her terrible facial deformity, making for a unique dichotomy in which she seems to be trying her best to use the former to distract you from the latter.  With no other context, before I even explain what relationships she may have with other characters or how she fits into the larger story, you can immediately draw a couple of assumptions about Mileena.

– There’s an element of deception to her character, meaning she’s most likely a bad guy.

– There is a part of herself that she’s ashamed of.

You would also be correct in assuming which of these two Mortal Kombat ever cared to explore, calling back to their need to place the entire cast into buckets of good and evil in the original timeline.  In the beginning, Mileena was a clone created for the purpose of eventually replacing Kitana as princess of Outworld, but she’s an imperfect copy due to blood used from the monstrous Tarkatan race.  This results in her sharp teeth and possibly explains her urge to occasionally eat people.  From the moment she was “born”, she’s only ever known this purpose, and proves loyal to the various top villains that seek her services as the series continues, eventually failing alongside them.

Long after she’s known to Kitana and seemingly everyone else, she continues to cover her face, despite the fact that no one else of the Tarkatan race does the same.  It’s clear she didn’t choose to be the way she is, and there’s a self-loathing that continues to exist in the character long after the feud with her blue counterpart is forgotten.  It’s important to also remember that Mileena is only several years old at this point, indicating that she’s rapidly grown in intelligence in a short period of time, at least enough to be self-conscious and caring to do something about it.  None of this is ever really explored by the time Armageddon rolls around, as she dies with the rest of the cast before they create the reboot timeline.

Prior to the release of MK9, I had a faint hope that Mileena’s more tragic elements would be explored, and as you can likely guess at this point, that very much did not happen.

Mileena’s appearance in that game amounts to little more than a cameo, dressing in an outfit that would make Metal Gear’s Quiet blush and generally serving to pad the roster of baddies for the heroes to dispatch.  While the story modes of the recent Netherrealm games have done wonders to the presentation of those titles, they all have the same structural flaws.  In these modes, with few exceptions, you are only ever playing as good guys, meaning that the only time you’ll see a villain is whilst they’re losing fights.  It’s a wonder Shao Khan bothers keeping Baraka and Reptile on the payroll considering how often the heroes stomp them, and Mileena gets the same treatment.

Her part in Mortal Kombat X, however, was much more prominent, making her the heir to the Outworld throne (since Shao Khan and everyone else got blown up) and leading her own side of that realm’s Civil War.  Fans were excited at the prospect of her finally having something to sink her prominent teeth into, stepping out of the servant role and having a motivation independent of Kitana.  I was, once again, optimistic.

This is the same optimism I feel now on the road to Mortal Kombat 11 and why I called it misplaced earlier.  There has really been no point in the series when I thought Netherrealm had more than a rudimentary grasp of characters and story, yet I’ve always been willing to run after that proverbial football Lucy was holding.  I never felt an entitlement or ownership of Mileena or any of my other favorites, I just wanted them to reach their potential, to show an extra dimension, even if in the briefest of moments.

So, of course, in MKX, Mileena is frequently beaten in fights, all of her true allies die and the others reveal they always intended to betray her.  Outside of suddenly discovering modesty and putting a more reasonable outfit together, Mileena does nothing beyond acting like an impulsive numskull that’s in way over her head before unceremoniously dying to series newcomer D’Vorah.

Even in the tie-in comic, long-ridiculed series jabroni Reiko is able to manipulate Mileena by acting as a love interest.  This offers a potentially interesting glimpse into that self-loathing she has and her willingness to throw herself at any dude that’s willing to love a monster like herself.  Perhaps this could even lead to a moment where that tragic undertone of her character is finally brought to light, culminating in a cathartic revenge when she learns she’d been duped.

Nah, none of that ever happens.  She’s just bug food.

It’s worth noting that Mileena is far from the only example of this sort of wasted potential in the Mortal Kombat series, she’s just one of the most egregious.  In what is perhaps a fitting tribute to the grisly finishing moves that made the series famous in the first place, MK has never had a problem killing characters off in horrible ways, but rarely has it ever been satisfying or done much to serve the plot; the level of storytelling never reaching beyond the surface level attributes of those iconic characters.

So where is this optimism coming from?  I suppose there’s always been that hope that the next game in the series would be the one to finally “get it”, though maybe there’s a misguided assumption on my part that Netherrealm ever wanted Mortal Kombat and the story it presents to be anything more than it already is.  Maybe they know the tragic implications of Mileena’s design and simply don’t care or don’t consider that a priority in the face of all the other cast members trying to elbow their way into the roster once more.

It’s important to remember that this all started as a group of 30-somethings that met in a room and came up with ideas for what would be cool to do, and that process seems to still inform the games they make today; the traditional battle of good versus evil that still feels beholden to its kung fu and comic book roots.  Scorpion is the cool ninja man.  Raiden is the cool thunder man.  Mileena isn’t a minefield of conflicting psychosis shambling in search of a purpose, she’s that evil succubus you beat in the second fight of Chapter 8, nothing more.

Is that a deal breaker?  No, though it will always be more than a little unsatisfying.  Given she’s currently dead, chances of Mileena having any presence in Mortal Kombat 11 are slim, which is freeing, in a way, since I can go into this new game without any expectations as to how she’ll be treated.

That said, they are hinting at a time travel aspect to the new game, perhaps even a merging of the two timelines, meaning we could get old Mileena back, ready to do battle with all of these fools that thought her reboot counterpart was so easy to push around.

See? There I go hoping again.



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